Adam: Helldiving is hard. I think I am the worst Helldiver.
Alec: Helldiving is AWESOME.
Adam: Helldiving is the act of diving into hell. Where hell is understood to be one of several planets occupied by hostile forces. Mostly, in our experience, bugs. Bugs that tore our starship troopers into pieces.
To be clear about this, Helldivers [official site] is a cooperative game, from the creators of the original Magicka. It involves friendly fire, d-pad combos, mechs dropping from alien skies, ammunition shortages, panic, awesome motorbikes and death. Lots of death. I think I like it rather a lot.
Alec: I am also extremely in favour of ‘helldive’ becoming a verb. The game’s an enormously pleasant surprise anyway, especially one to end the year with. I’d for some reason had it in my end that it was some hyper-precise aeroplane-based shmup, which I think is because the logo looks quite a bit like Luftrausers, so the discovery that it’s sort of Destiny Does Alien Breed was delightful. It’s so Pop! which is exactly what I needed after the year of heavy duty fare like the Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. But it manages to be bloody brutal as well as Pop: the operative term is, as you mention, panic.
It’s about getting yourself into a terrible state then trying to find a desperate way out of it. The consequences are never especially harsh, but the idea that you must win any situation - that you must bring “Managed Democracy” to these various alien worlds is absolute. It is VERY IMPORTANT to emerge triumphant. Especially when it's impossible.
Adam: From our session earlier today, one sequence around thirty seconds long encapsulated just about everything I like about the game. You’d deployed a mech and were stomping around battering aliens left, right and centre. That’s tricker than it sounds because the mechs turn REALLY slowly, creaking and hissing. They are, as you said at the time, very much like Warhammer 40,000 Dreadnoughts in appearance rather than anything from the Battletech end of the mechtrum.
The mech was soon aflame, having taken loads of damage from a tentacled hellbeast, and it exploded, killing you to bits. I was on foot, surrounded and doomed, but I managed to throw down a turret and keep myself alive long enough to call in reinforcements - which is the game’s way of allowing you to respawn a dead co-op buddy. Almost as soon as the pod with replacement Alec landed, the same beastie that had killed original Alec killed me, and so it went. We were just about capable of surviving long enough to call in reinforcements while fleeing for cover and covering ourselves, but far too doomed to make it out of the situation in one piece.
Smashing. Chaotic and on a knife edge the whole time, but always leaning toward farce rather than being punishing. The weapon and equipment drops are wonderful - they can splatter anything foolish enough to stand in their way as they land, friend or foe. That is a good thing.
Alec: It’s very Unofficial 40K in so many ways, isn’t it? The whole Space Fascists pretending to be righteous plot (though ‘plot’ is probably being too generous), the death toll, the big stompiness, the idea that the ‘heroes’ are as sacrificable and squishy as anything else…. We get so many 40K games that don’t really feel like 40K, but this gets so much closer to hitting the right buttons, even if the irony is probably too overt.
I am sadly aware that, in other players’ hands, our comically inept funtimes would be considered foolish and disastrous, that this is a game you can master if you put your mind to it, that you’ll pursue specific unlocks and have specific strategies for any situation, and that'll you'll grind your way to the best stuff. I don’t think I ever want to be playing it like that, though. I want to be screaming and laughing, not tutting and chest-thumping.
How do you feel about the Destiny-esque weapon/power unlock treadmill? Is it in danger of taking over?
Adam: That’s the side of the game I’m least affectionate toward. I like unlocking things if there’s a sense of progression and I’m learning as I go, but that didn’t seem to be the case. I felt like there were a lot of things happening that weren’t meaningful to me - numbers flashing up on screen telling me how the wider global multiplayer war effort was going in particular - and I don’t know which of those things affect me and which I can safely ignore.
I’ve never played Destiny but I wasn’t surprised that you drew the comparison. I should be very specific here - I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the experience levels and unlocks and research points, the whole structure might work fantastically well, but after spending a couple of hours with the game, I saw it as an interruption to the actual fun of Helldiving. As long as I have one shotgun, one assault rifle and one sniper rifle to choose from, I’m not convinced I need too much more background noise and accessorising taking me out of the fight.
I do like that we very quickly managed to create classes of a sort, simply by picking different loadouts though. My first build was a sniper with turrets and personal shields to deploy, and my second had a beefy shotgun and a lumbering great mech. I was crap with both of them, of course, but given how basic the missions actually are, the loadouts did change my approach enough to matter.
Alec: I think I was lucky in that I found a weapon I really liked right off the bat - some kind of laser rifle which you fire in short, controlled bursts and try to prevent it overheating rather than worrying about ammo per se. I’ve learned the rythym of it really quickly. So I’m quite invested in upgrading that, maxing it out rather than having to learn anything else. Same with the mech suit I picked - it’s got dual machineguns for dealing with lighter enemies, whereas yours is the anti-tank one, and you’re running out of ammo quick because, at least at the level we’re playing it, you’re mostly encountering squishy stuff rather than gigant-o-monsters.
This is possibly something I’ve picked up from my limited amount of Destiny play - I kind of know from weapon descriptions and even all those different range/power/etc meters what kind of thing is going to suit my playstyle, whereas before that I just made a beeline for whatever sounded more destructive. But as for what happens once I’ve maxed out my favourite toys, I don’t know. I do worry that Helldivers could becoming diminishing returns pretty quickly if I binged on it, just the pursuit of ever-more-distant upgrade points and getting hung up on all those rankings and bars you mentioned about the wider mutiplayer battle. That’s why I actively want to restrict it to ‘party game’ rather than one I go directly to when I have spare time.
Adam: My favourite mission type, of the few we encountered, was the ordnance disposal. Unexploded mines are scattered across a small area, not even a full screen, and once you arrive in that zone, one Helldiver has to use a metal detector to find the mines and disarm them. It uses all of the game’s systems in one compact area.
There’s the cooperative effort that’s at the heart of the game. While the minesweeper is sweeping, teammates need to provide protection. And the detector has to be called in as a supply drop, which means you need those few seconds to dial in the code and then retrieve the crate. And then there’s the actual defusion process, which requires the player to input a combo on the d-pad - one wrong button press triggers the mine and kills anyone nearby, primarily the person who caused the explosion in the first place.
It’s great fun, especially when you know that even the worst fuck up only means extra work for the survivors, as they attempt to clean up your mess and call you back into action. There’s no such thing as instant failure, even when you’re causing a bomb to explode in your own face.
Alec: You are particularly good at making bombs explode in your own face. But it is, in fairness, partly down to the whole D-pad Simon Says minigame for calling in special power-ups and for certain mission objectives such as bomb defusal. I’m in two minds about that. I don’t object to the concept - because really the concept is “do something really fiddly while you’re swarmed by aliens or robots”, and that’s the heart of much of the excellent drama here - but I feel like maybe there’s a slightly less annoying way they could have done it.
Especially because most people using a gamepad on PC - and gamepad is very much best for Helldivers - are using an Xbox 360 one, on which the d-pad is notoriously awful. I’ve had disasters or cancelled power-ups simply because the pad didn’t quite read my taps right. Maybe it should have been a face buttons combo instead. But a minor issue. Possibly major enough for me to consider dropping funbucks on a better pad, though.
Do you feel like this is going to be a long-term endeavour for you? I’m itching to go back right now, but I suspect if I let the inertia fade that will be that, which is sad.
Adam: I’d definitely play more right now if I could find the time, but I’ve got Horacetide stuffing to prepare and mulled wine to drink. I’m glad that it supports local co-op because I recently hooked my computer up to the big (well, moderately sized) screen in my front room and could feasibly get three people on the couch to play. It seems well-suited to local play, given that heroic saves and accidental shots in the back are regular occurrences. When we were both in our mechs, I was tempted to start a fight just for the hell of it.
On that note, I wish the mechs had melee weapons. Maybe that comes with later upgrades. I wanted a chainsword quite a lot.
I thought it’d feel a lot more like Magicka than it does. There’s the friendly fire, the fumbled combos and the improvised panic, which all seem like trademarks of Arrowhead. But the objectives and concise maps make it far more focused, I thought. I wanted to do well, even though failure was enjoyable enough.
Alec: It feels like a game which knows exactly what it wants to be. And like a game which someone really, really wanted to make. It’s in the Invisible Inc category - although an entirely different game of course - in terms of there’s very little visible feature creep, everything seems to serve a purpose, and it’s all about conjuring a specific feeling. Invisible Inc was tension, this is panic. Which is why it doesn’t work anything like so well as a singleplayer game - the drama’s all hung around the last-minute rescues, collaborating on equipment, hating each other for friendly fire or getting landed on by the other’s supply pod. Then laughing about it immediately afterwards.
God, is it too late to change up the RPS Advent Calendar?
Adam: I want to call a mech, have the drop pod land on my head, and then watch as my partner jumps into the mech and tries to avenge my death. The death that was essentially suicide-by-mech. Accidental suicide-by-mech. How many games can that happen in? Not enough.
I think I even like the cheery ‘Liberty And Democracy RAHRAHRAH’ stuff. It’s so bloody obvious but it does give all of the character barks and whatnot much more character than they’d have if they were ever-so-serious space marines.
Nobody should release games in December. It is very annoying when it comes to Calendar creation.
Alec: Bestest Best helldiving of 2015, anyway.
Adam: Bestest Best Helldiving ever.
Alec: Happy Christmas, planet Super Earth.
Helldivers is out now.